Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Luis Alberto Urrea: Into the Beautiful North
And now it's my pleasure to introduce Luis Alberto Urrea. Mr. Ray is it an award winning author in virtually every genre including fiction essays poetry memoir and even a mystery short story. Most recently his nonfiction work the Devil's Highway the story of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and his last novel The Hummingbird's Daughter was named the best book of 2005 by The Los Angeles Times. He's also a professor of creative writing. Having taught at the University of Colorado the University of Louisiana-Lafayette the Massachusetts Bay Community College and here at Harvard. He currently teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His new book Into the Beautiful North has been called a wondrous yarn in the hands of a terrific storyteller by the Seattle Times and a funny and poignant impossible journey in which the characters come to earth and tried for a homeland they have gone on a comedic pilgrimage to defend by the Dallas Morning News. Thanks. This is such an unlikely event. Me being
here you know when I when I first came here I used to spend all my time here at Harvard books. I lived in the basement and buying used books so this is crazy. I just want to tell you a little bit about myself and about the book and about what I'm up to. And a little bit of my original coming out here. And what happened. I was born in Tijuana. My dad was Mexican. My mom was American. I spoke Spanish before I spoke English. So people often ask me if you're mexican why do you look Irish. So I thought I would try to explain this to you. First my mom was from New York. She was raised. She was born in Staten Island but raised in Staten Island in Manhattan and in I guess near Greenport North Central. Right. Long Island in a town called Mattituck. And so she considered herself kind of a New Englander really because she identified with
Connecticut and upper Long Island quite a bit. But she wasn't the blond blue eyed one in the family. My dad was the Mexican. Now there is Basque originally. OK. And in Basque the word Aria means man of gold. In other words Baba looking blind people but also in the town that my father is from which is the basis for the town in this novel it's actually invented but it's based on my father's home town. There was mining quite a bit of silver mining gold and copper in the area and Irish miners Scots miners people from around the world came in to work those mines. So my grandfather was the Basque married a woman named Guadalupe Murray. That's why I look Irish. And then my dad happened my mom and dad met after World War II.
And perhaps if any of you have any expertise in World War Two you can check in with me after the thing but my next novel down the road is a book about this experience she had. She was a donor. Dolly you know them. They were the women who drove the trucks and made donuts and coffee in the front lines. She was in the Red Cross she was under Patton and she was at the liberation of Boogie involved and then she was severely injured in a in a terrible Jeep crash on the German front lines. So this incredible story she left behind photographs and journals and memoirs and you know as a kid you don't take your parents all that seriously and then later after they're gone. Sometimes you look back and think wow that was a remarkable story. I wish I pay better attention. So I'm I'm researching the doughnut dollies for a future book. My next book I'm working on now because everybody asks is the sequel to Hummingbird's Daughter. And it's well in it's about 450 pages. I've turned in 350 of those pages and I have a couple hundred pages to go. So that'll be a we hope this time next year.
So I was born and I came to San Diego at about the age of 5 and through my parents endless prodding I was the first member of my family to go to college and at college I met Lowery PE who lives here in Cambridge who's at Simmons College now. LOWERY PE was my writing professor at college and he was one of those crazy young hippie professors. He had long hair and love beads and you'd go to his office for a conference and he'd be like wanna play my drums and we'd be playing Indian drums and pay. Pay became a hero one day during a writing workshop when he got bored with us and climbed up on the table and went to sleep during the workshop. And I thought that's how I want to teach English one day. Anyway I was the first to go to college and I wanted to write.
I always wanted to write. I'd been in love with writing my whole life partly because I think my family were insanely loquacious and storytellers and I really loved the sense of passing on history and stories through tales. And I got really interested in this as a kid possibly because I was I was raised in a pretty rough barrio and you know bubble looking kid from Tijuana with a Mexican accent. I was sort of open it was open season on me for any ethnic group. And I would come out of school I had about a mile walk to our little housing project apartment and you know I was in my little Catholic school red sweater my little corduroy pants and my little white shirt and my little book bag. And I think I would step out on the street. And then there's this sort of psychic call would go out through the barrio which every group would say I think I shall kick his ass today. And so it became smarter to stay in the apartment and read I think than to go outside and face what was going on out there. Also my mother always read to me and I think that I was
I was touched by an early age by literature. I didn't know it then. My mom used to read to me when I went to bed at night and she was again you know knew she was New England in New York very different from the neighborhood I lived in kind of a late Victorian era born in 1915. Her mother was from the mid century late 19th century so she she had all these Victorian kind of affectations still that were really curious in the barrio. You know always wore little white gloves. You know had a little one strand of sensible pearls and sometimes or a little hat with a veil and so forth. And Lowery might remember this which used to move her hand like this and she'd call everybody dear boy dear boy Loughrey page. Oh that dear dear Loughrey play. So my mom would read to me and as a little boy she would read Dickens and I had no idea what Dickens was saying. I didn't understand it but I
loved the language of it. You know would flow over me and put me to sleep at night and all of a sudden she came to this what I think is a stroke of genius and started reading Mark Twain. So Mark Twain was the first author that just blew my mind. I I could not believe somebody had written that Tom Sawyer and somebody had written Huck Finn and he was dead. But still speaking to me that way. So I was hooked. And when I was in junior high in high school I was mad for songwriters Leonard Cohen people like that. So I started trying to write perhaps bad Jim Morrison songs I don't know what I was writing but it was bad. And my mom saw me applying myself for the first time in my life to something. And she went out in the garage and got her world war II typewriter and she set it up on the kitchen table for me. So I suspiciously approach to this thing. There were some paper and I put it in and I you know we figured out how one typed. And I realized that it was magical that it made my scrawl really neat and beautiful and it looked published
and there was this feature that my kids have no idea about but you'll recognize and that was the two tone ribbon. And if I just said it right half of the word was red and heaven and I thought you know I used to tell myself my words are on fire. They're burning mans like an art form or half on fire. And I started typing like crazy. And they would come home every day after school and type and type and type. And I was actually getting little stack as first time I'd ever made a stack of anything really except maybe toys but actual something I'd created. So I went to school one day junior high school and I came home and my mom was waiting for me and had the famous handout. And she said dear boy there's a little surprise for you and the kitchen table. So I go into the kitchen and my mom has taken my manuscript. I didn't know it was a manuscript and sewed it together and glued a cover on it. And I was suddenly the bestselling author in my kitchen. Right. I had a book.
Wow. So that's partially what carried me I think into college now. My dad was trying to instill Mexican culture in me at the same time there was a real war between American culture by my mom and Mexican culture by my dad and as their marriage went sour. We ended up with the border right in the middle of our apartment. There was always Mexico on one side us on the other side. And my mom called me Lewis and my dad come in peace and my mom you know spoke English my dad spoke Spanish and they didn't cross. And my father seeing my mom's endless array of books for me to read. He was trying to slip me juicy stuff you know like Harold Robbins stuff with sex and you like that. But he was eager for me to absorb some Mexicans and he was a chauvinist about Mexico. Everything good came from Mexico. So he would take me aside sometimes say Luis KOVR-TV invented by Mexicans gringo stole. Wow dad you know washer dryer Mahe ganas made it gringo
stone. So one day anyway in my literary journey he had gone to Tijuana and he was looking for a Mexican book for me and he came across a translation of the Iliad and The Odyssey right. So he brings it back to our house and when one of his legendary moments he slams it on the kitchen table he says Luis study this in the original Spanish. So how could you not write. You know. I went to college studying with Mr. pay over here and my father because I was the first one to go to college. My father was very proud and excited and had decided to go to his hometown the same hometown you read about in this book and retrieve his life savings as my graduation gift was a thousand U.S. dollars. He had it in a bank in Rossetti's you know. So he drove 27 hours and retrieved the money.
And on the way back from that he was killed by the Mexican cops a terrible death and terrible story which I won't go into except that somebody saved the money. The cops didn't get the money. However they sold me his corpse. I was 20 years old. Senior people who remember my senior year second half my senior year and they sold me the corpse for $750 and they told me if I didn't pay the $750 they would take the body back and give it back to the police department to do whatever they wanted with it. So I bought my father's corpse with my graduation money and then the owner of the funeral home came out and said you know you have to pay for the funeral too. So I had to go to mourner's and beg for money until I got up with the change enough to bury my dad. And I realized the horror of it was that my father had died to bury himself.
He had actually gone on a huge journey to die so that he could afford to bury himself which has been the underlying tragedy of my view of what happens on the border. People always say wow you know this book's really funny border but there's a tragedy behind it that never goes away. That was it. So I was in PE class and I was hanging out with PE and I was helping get some journals and things and I could not process this. How do you process this. All I had was writing and I kept writing and writing and writing about it. Well Ursula Gwinn science fiction fantasy author and she was the guest in lú repays writing workshop and she was going to be our guest professor and all I knew to do is write about my father's death and I wrote this piece and we gave it to her. And Ursula surprisingly accepted it for an anthology and it was my first sale I ever really made. So she handed me my career starting
with that but I also realized it in some ways it was my father's sacrifice. He sacrificed himself and gave me a future. So I try hard to honor that sacrifice. I don't think it was worth it. I would trade my books but I can't. So I try to I try to make good on that. After that you know I couldn't go on to graduate school. I was just blown out. I didn't know what to do. And I took a series of questionable jobs many jobs all kinds of anything to make a buck. I like to say that I was up I don't put it I was a cartoonist in a clothing optional magazine was it makes any sense. And I was you know I was a janitor then. All these jobs and I ended up getting a job as a film extra. So I did some film X-raying and a couple of films being Southern California. What you think you're going to be a movie star right. Pay came off to Harvard and I felt that I needed to do something meaningful and
I ended up joining this group that did missionary work in Tijuana. They always call it relief for it. But let's face it it was you know washing the feet of beggars and feeding garbage pickers so it was kind of the purest form I think of missionary work and work in orphanages and then he went to a garbage dump which you will see in this book prisons street gangs and so forth. And I did this for years. I became the translator of this group and saw everything imaginable and I thought wow it would be really interesting to write about these folks. And I did this thing which I always tell young writers don't do. I made a deal with God. So don't make a deal with God first of because whatever you may think of God whatever God is you make a deal with God. God will say OK but it's not the deal you have in mind. It's the deal the cosmos has in mind and I was like well put aside my Stephen King dreams my fantasy of being Robert Ludlum or whatever and I will not rest until I've told the story of the people who have no one to tell their story. And I always think of the God presence saying to the gathered cosmos.
Did you hear what this idiot just promised me and I was put to the test and that test was just hopelessness and heartbreak and trouble in Tijuana. It was a really tough time in my family a lot of my family was involved in street gang stuff so there was no there was no respite anywhere. It got really rough and tough. And not to keep harping on Loughrey pay. However at one point I wrote a letter to Lowery pay and I said I cannot take it anymore I'm poverty stricken I'm up to my knees in blood. It's horrible here I don't know what to do. Can you get me a job as a custodian at Harvard. I said I will clean classrooms and I'll come out here and do whatever it takes just to get out of this cycle of hopelessness. And I always tell people I've been talking about you all this trip. I always tell people you know pay remembered who I was and I forgot who I was and that year our streets were so bad in San Diego that my mother for Christmas
gave me a strip of postage stamps for a Christmas present that's all we could afford and she wrapped it in wrapping paper this little strip of wrapping paper in the hopes that I would submit another poem or story to a little egg maybe get published somewhere. That was it. And so he writes me back and he says I think I can get you a job. I didn't know he was but muckety muck at. I'd never heard of X-boxes I think I can get you a job. He said you need to send me three published pieces and I went to all the homeboys in San Diego and said Dude Harvard is so seclusive janitors have to be published poets man and all my moron friends we were in there all night donut shop and they were like Dude friggin Ivy-League man. Wow. Seriously. And I just recently in fact in the last maybe two months found your letter to me. This crazy letter written all kinds of jazz lingo that maybe you'll dig it maybe you
won't but you've got the job and he said I don't know if you think this is a lot or an insult but it pays fourteen thousand dollars a year and I thought holy God how do I spend that much money. I really did. I thought that's too much money and I came out here for the first time in 1982 which was a revelation. You can imagine it being a book loving kid from the one the dirt street and the one I was born on the road to the dog track in Tijuana coming here and we went out for a walk. My first day in pay takes me to Memorial Hall and says Here's your classroom. And I just thought that's it I'm going to die now. I can't I've never even seen a gargoyle. And you know there's this gigantic building. I'm not even good enough to enter this building was a teacher. And I still remember when I said what do I do. And he says you write teach them how. I thought I'm like I can't do it. But it happened. It happened. Harvard opened up a lot of things not least of which was realizing that I was also from here. I was only limited in the world by my own impression of the
world. I had identified so strongly with my dad right so strongly with Tijuana and the Chicanos in the Mekhi gun was it never occurred to me that I could go into the world and live happily there too. And my family who did not comprehend what was happening had a farewell gathering for me in 1982 and my eldest brother one who was a half brother from my father's first marriage gathered the family and he said to them Luis is going to Harvard to teach riding like the wind. And he said Luis's handwriting is so beautiful. And he put it. He's going to teach the rich Gringo's how to write. So I came here in their opinion to do polymer math. And you know all the miracles ensued and one of the biggest miracles was going down to visit paying Greenport. He was down there in Long Island. I realize I'm close to an event my mom's aunt who's down in Mattituck. I've always heard these
mythic stories about this wonderful Yankee Aunt Eva. You know so I went down to see her and she was eight when I met her and she lived in a farmhouse that had a pump she was still pumping her own water raising raspberries and harvesting raspberries she had my mother's books my mother's encyclopedia. She was the best we had the most wonderful day and you know she'd say funny things and punch me in the arm just like this woman. But she had not seen my mother since the 1950s. My mother was so I think embarrassed and isolated by the poverty and so forth that she'd never gotten back in touch with her family. So Aunt Eva said Please get your mother out. And when when Lowery came and picked me up I'll never forget it. She came up to Lowery and she said dear boy. Never believe the lies Satan tells you that. And you're like no ma'am I won't like it. Get out of here. So I had money for the first time.
That whopping 14 grand and I flew my mom out and my mother said I want you to call it evil but don't tell her I'm here. And I did I call that evil. And of course the sit in diva. Somebody wants to talk to you and hand her the phone and took off. And of course she burst into tears and then he said Why have you been gone. Why didn't you talk to us. And so the next day put my mom on the train at South Station took her to a new line and we took the ferry. Her cousins picked her up and she took care of it even till she was 103 when she died. So there was a bit of a happy ending in there. And I'm I just want to tell you that Harvard books gave me some of my most memorable shocking first Cambridge experiences ever. I don't know if they're old timers here who remains Schnee still be around the woman who would cruise around the yard with a sheaf of papers shake in it. But do you know her. Holy cow. I was walking across the yard thinking it's really awesome. All of a sudden this woman jumped in my face was shaking me
like this. So I came in here and I shopped my very first visit here and I came out with a couple of used books and there was a woman at the poolside tied to the pole with yarn and I looked at her. She turned around to me I swear to you I've never forgotten this I wrote it down she said. Of course I didn't come from a machine you damned fool they used a man's penis and I thought you don't see this in San Diego. I couldn't believe it. I thought I've gone to writing haven't met. So anyway thanks Harvard books and thanks Lowery. You know the last thing I'll say about all that is that in my family when they realize that I was quite at home here and had settled into my mother's story as well they used to say back home that Luis went from free callers to baked beans which I thought was pretty cool. So this story you know very briefly based on my father's
hometown like I said which is actually Rosada seen a lawyer. I call it let's come out ownness in this book. I wanted to be more imaginative means three shrimp. It's kind of a joke. It's a coastal town a little town has no elevators but it does have a movie theater. And what made me think of this story was you know since Devil's Highway especially I get lots and lots of immigration jobs in fact I'm flying out at 6 a.m. tomorrow to go give a lecture on immigration Dallas and a lot of information about immigration. The Border Patrol teaches that books are Border Patrol agents are always sending me stuff for you know politicians or so forth and journalists and I've been really interested in stories coming out of Mexico of towns emptied of men over the last few years that have a female population or a child or retired population of males. But all of the sort of patriarchy is gone. And in the in the vacuum of power women are starting to step up and take charge of
some of these towns that have never had women power before. And it's so exciting. You know the kind of feminization of rural Mexican politics fascinates me and it's it's affecting the border. I think it's a really interesting change. So I started imagining what what would happen in my dad's town if all the men were gone and there was going to be a woman mayor who would it be and I started thinking in my own family for a model. And I hit on my own. And your mom who was Mexico's female bone bowling champion and was a very terrifying. She was the most terrifying character I'd ever known in my life. And I thought OK she was pretty fierce and she was from the town she would be mayor for sure. And you know how it is when you're writing fiction you just imagine scenarios and I thought well she and my other and let her sister used to have these ridiculous debates all the time and I overheard them having an argument one day about Yul Brynner. That Yul Brynner was Mexican. And that he was like get out of your mind you know you'll never know but to me he got no
brainer. And she'd say I am the bowling champion in Mexico. I have bowled all over Mexico. I was in Puerto Vallarta. I saw jewel Brenner's house. It's a young so you know and like no you're crazy. And then she said something as stupid as I thought was Borba and he spoke perfect Spanish and all that like. It was it was dumb. So I'm thinking about this scene right. And I'm remembering that in my home town my uncle by the way named Carlos Hubbard deep in the Irish had the only movie theater and this movie theater was a classic sort of Mexican cinema. So you know hot had tin roof that was open at the top is full of bats and they had two fans going and they would show a constant stream of double features that didn't make any rational sense it was just whatever film cans had gotten to myself. You drive and get them and bring it back.
So you'd have like a double feature of love story in 2001 A Space Odyssey. You know you would have things like Godzilla king of the monsters with bullet you know just these weird. And I was I was telling a radio guy I think yesterday but I remember you know having discussions with workers sort of peasant workers with thatched huts discussing 2001 and even then I thought this is miraculous and they were saying things like I understand now that the solar system is an atom and we are all atoms we're all circling electrons and we're probably just part of the little toenail of God all the universe is actually ours we just can't see what it makes because they saw 2001 which thought was really cool. And one of the things that really impressed me in this little theater of course the bats when there's thunder the bats drop on the people and they have fans and they you know fan above their heads and keep watching or they turn up their lighters and shoot flames at the bat. They keep them and just keep watching these movies.
And I was really impressed because they showed this movie called The War Wagon we remember that John Wayne and Kirk Douglas and they're attacking an iron clad stagecoach. So we're watching it. And you have to understand it's very old. It's been around the world a million times. It's dubbed into German. Right. It has Chinese subtitles and then it has a black strip sort of wobbly obliterating the Chinese in rudimentary Spanish right. So I'm already giggling and the Mexicans are like shout out. What's the matter with you. They didn't know this was funny. And I was dying with laughter because John was speaking German. John Wayne. There's this one Syrie comes in the room you know he's like Mark Snell dummkopf my house you know. It was just it was exquisite. I was tired so I started thinking about this whole scenario and I think OK so and your mother becomes mayor of
Cameron What's her first act as mayor. Well clearly she demands that the theater have a you will bring her film first. And nobody in town wants to see your brain or any more of the like oh no. And the owner of the theater I'm extrapolating is a Steve McQueen fan and he decides while there's only one movie with the two of them which is the magnificent seven. So then I thought wait a minute the magnificent seven. OK. Now the town has to be attacked by bandits like in the movie and somebody has got to go get seven gunmen. That's how the novel started. These young women stranded in the town 19 years old they've never seen magnificent seven they're bored out of their minds and they're watching this stupid western. They hate your Brinner they hate Steve McQueen. They're making fun of their clothes and the stupid little cowboy hats and all of a sudden the young woman who's the leader of this group known as the notorious girlfriends has this funny I like I like kind of silly little epiphanies that big religious ones I would say you know I think you expect the epiphany to come on a mountain peak with
rays of sun. But most of us are down in the pig sty in the mud you know and you get funky epiphanies right. You know you get this moment of pure James Brown and God speaks to you. That's what happens there at the movie and they're sweating and they're bored. And she starts seeing this and it hits her that maybe she can go to the United States and get seven of their men back maybe cops who fled Mexico bring them back to stop the bandits. And she thinks wow if I do this the Americans won't be mad that we're coming in illegally because we're taking people away instead of bringing people. So we'll be heroic to them and it kicks off this journey to try to save her village and you know I was thinking about things like Joseph Campbell believe it and I was thinking about heroes journeys and you know you see it from Beowulf to Mad Max you know to Lonesome Dove there are all these guys going off into these these noble causes and in dangerous landscapes but not often teenage young women doing it. I hate to say this it sounds pretentious
but I have a movie agent and he says it's cinema parodies meets Magnificent Seven for girls. And the last thing I'll throw out about that is that in the actual town that I would go to visit with my father there was one gay man there's one gay man in this novel based on this fellow's got the same name. His name was Tatchell and tacho was a hero to me. They already thought that since I was coming from California I was a long haired kid and kind of weird and I didn't speak macho enough Spanish and I didn't smoke and I didn't drink. Granted I was 12 but you know they got me on tequila right away 13th birthday when I was up. But this this young man all alone in this town realized somehow that if he was going to survive in that atmosphere he would be out. But not only would he be out he would be massively out
confrontational he out. So much so that he became a fixture in the town's mythology. There's our beloved Gayman tacho. He's our gay guy and he would always you know he confronted the whole world and push them back down to give himself space. And it made him so macho I think that the macho guys admired him for it. And this is a town that loves a character they love eccentrics So he he he worked this science very well. The family thought it would be a bad thing if Tatchell and I hooked up and they always we don't take them all right. Keep in touch. But in 1980 I finally hung out with him. I was visiting for Christmas and my female cousins need to buy shoes and tacho had set up a business selling women's shoes out of his house. So I finally got to go to touch his house. And we spent the evening together and I just loved him. He was funny and brave and really cool and some of the wilder things tacho says in this book are things that the original Real teachers said to me I've never
forgotten. Anyway this is now in Spanish. And my family took the book to him. And we got an e-mail a couple of months ago that says tacho has now become insufferable because he's the hero of an American novel and he takes it around he says to people I told you I was special you know. So I'm really happy about that it makes me happy. And you never know when you write something like that if it if it if it will be true or not. I try to keep it as true as I could to honor him. And you know the book got a citation a rainbow citation from the library association for gay and transgendered kids and that made me really happy. I didn't write the book for kids I'm surprised the way people are grabbing it because I thought wow I would have toned it down some. But I guess the kids are used to pretty sophisticated material. So that's it. And they undertake a journey that leads them ultimately to Kankakee Illinois. And up part of the
reason for that was I thought it would be interesting to show the story of a typical Mexican town that's on hard times and a typical American Rust Belt town that's found hard times. There's an essay in the back of the paperback. That's a piece I wrote for The New York Times about Kankakee so you can see why but they have a really marvelous attempt to make sense of this immigrant population that they've never had before and they were really wonderful to us. And there was a librarian there named Mary Jo Johnston and it had been an idea of mine to make Mary Jo the hero of the book. And I want to just say for you writers always make librarians the hero of your book. Because libraries pick it up all over the country it's awesome it's a great great move. But Mary Jo Johnston died of a stroke during a library event in Kankakee and her beloved library. So I was even more sure that I
was going to write about Kankakee and about her and I decided forget it. I'm not even fictionalized I'm going to make it. Mary Jo is an honor to her. But then I got a little worried because you know you go into someone's house you write about someone's house and then you write about their mom too. It's kind of scary. And I started telling my wife you know what don't tell Kankakee that I'm writing about them or Mary Jo and she finally was like Are you an idiot it's going to be in a book. I mean there are librarians who are going to find out. So she called the library and told Mary Joe's assistance and they just flipped. They were so excited and we started hardcover book tour last year in Kankakee and they named Mary Jo Johnston days and they began a fund. So there are scholarships in her name now. We went to the country club and all the good you know golf and Republicans of Kankakee coffee and all kinds of money and then they started these funds for her and I like to say because I feel like I can retire from writing at any time that at the end of all this her daughter came up to me and she said
you know my mom always loved libraries and now thanks to you she'll spend eternity in libraries. And I thought wow man it's gravy from that on right it's just icing. So that's all that's all the story that's behind the book. You know the garbage dump is a garbage dump section which is of course based on my own experiences there are some border patrol material which based on my experiences from Devil's Highway to a lot of times I see people buying them together. So I always tell them Devil's Highway is the evil twin of this but because I wanted this book I wanted it to make me laugh. Well I wrote it and I laughed it would make readers happy but it would also be a way to write something more poppy than I usually write. That still addresses questions of witness and still tries to give voice to people that we don't necessarily hear every day. So that's that's what that was and I also thought you know if God willing you know this became some sort of beach book and people actually took it and read it on vacation. I wanted to
design it so that the typical American reader would be rooting for people they may not normally root for especially as the immigration stuff started heating up and people got more and more angry I thought wouldn't it be interesting to try to make a perverted twisted plot so that a reader in the United States would root for illegal aliens to avoid the border patrol and get in the United States so that be kind of a rich area for conversation and that's it's worked so far. So I've been really happy to last things and you know I know people probably have questions. I'll try to answer. But weirdly by happenstance a small press in Texas has done a graphic novel of one of my short stories. It's called Mr. Mendoza's paintbrush. The other reason I bring this up is because it's about the actual town the actual town that I fictionalized in this and this guy is an artist from Brooklyn he's a muralist Christopher Carter now. But I always tell people if you ever look this book up you can find out what Trest Cameron is really looks
like. It's just a beautiful book. I brought this one sorry your brother for pay my bill because this story was written many many many years ago under his tutelage in the first time I ever read this was at the no longer existing ex-boss offices. Remember that 1982. And you know the story sat around for all these years and now it's a graphic novels are brought it for you. I thought you'd get a kick out of it. The last thing is one of the things that precipitates the action in the novel is a postcard nailheads father the reason she's on her way to Kankakee is he's left for the United States and never come back. And he's living in Kinki Illinois. She gets one postcard and she carries this postcard with her and she looks at it over and over again and when she finally gets the United States she knows where she needs to go. She thinks I'll go to Cancun for my dad now growing up like I did. Going nowhere. No money no chance of ever
going anywhere unless my dad took me to Mexico. Getting mail was magic getting postcards. I we get postcards from Mexico which was magic to me and they became sacred objects so I felt that she would have a sacred object. And I described the postcard as a cornfield with a paranoid Turkey and it says you know welcome to Kankakee or whatever. Well then we decided why don't we get some Kankakee postcards and give them out to fans. But there's no such postcard. So we were forced to make the postcard. So we made the paranoid Turkey in the cornfield postcard and then we thought wouldn't it be hilarious to make postcards of the town that doesn't exist. Threats come out on us. So I went through all my really hideously crappy cause when you get postcards from Mexico they're often pretty hideously crappy postcards anyway. At least they used to be when I was a kid. And I found two really bad pictures of these towns that I had visited. So we made to one of them is empty rowboats in a mud bog and it says fishings great interest Cameron as you
know. And then in this village my dad is from. And I've been hearing now on Facebook from people that there are villages that have this have also in Mexico but I've never seen it. The people in Rosario don't say hi to you they say goodbye to you. It's a really weird quirk you know like you usually see somebody coming your you know you know you're not there you'd be walking along and you try to beat each other you go to the US. And you always your boss and you look back to see who you've passed away. And. When when I go visit my uncle the Hubbard. He had a TV set a lot of people didn't have TVs. And it was so hot there that he didn't like to be in the house to watch TV so he would put TV in his living room window. And then we'd all take chairs out in the middle of the street you know and we will put folding chairs on the cobbles. Yes we would we would sit out in the street you know and we watched TV and a car would come down the street and nobody would just get up
and move the chair and the car would go by just as it passed. You know. So we decided I found it I found pictures I took Instamatic from my bedroom in Rosario So we made a card that says your threats come out on us. So we named it the postcard ministry and we printed up stacks of postcards and we thought you know a couple of fans would enjoy these things and we've been through over 200 in the last three days. People have just been sucking them up. So here's what we did and here's the deal there are only 25 of them so we already stamped them and we I feel that e-mail. All that stuff just not holy. It's not sacred what's sacred is having something in your hand came from a human being. So we believe in mail. So if you would like to take one and send it to somebody you love mail it right away do so.
Or if you want me to sign it and mail it to you put your address on it and give it back to us and we will mail it somewhere. So I had to promise the people in Rockport I wouldn't mail it from Harvard Square. I'd wait till Alpine Texas or something so that they get a cool. Hello. It's the people in Rockport. Let me turn that off. Sorry. So if you would if you would like a postcard. Let my dear bride Cindy know and we'll take you again if you'd like to just get one in the mail address it to yourself. If you just want one take it and send it to somebody you care about. And that's it. Let's talk. Anything anybody you'd like to know. I'll try to answer. I think it was a royal actually. It's been a very long time and it's kind of sad because my mother was quite eccentric as well as all the other wonderful features she had. And it was getting very old and was jamming and she had heard that you have to oil a typewriter. So she poured cooking oil into it.
I know destroyed it. And I honestly I cried because I thought my life was over. You know I was always skirting the edge of catastrophe and the slightest thing was the end and that was the end for me. So it was quite a long time in fact when I was studying with him I was the only guy without a typewriter and he'd let me hand print stuff because I couldn't type anything they didn't have a typewriter for a very long time. But she killed it. Fortunately I got one later and the other thing you might appreciate is if you remember those stories were done on mimeographed and mimeograph masters and somehow the one about my dad I did type and I found the mimeograph master with your brown comments all over it and Ursula's comments all over it. Yeah. With the O's knocked out you know. And I went to a thing in honor of Ursula in Bend Oregon and she was there you know very grumpy all gray and we sat together and I got up and I said I told that story and I said
this is the last time I will ever read this story and I read it for you and I might retire it right here. And so I read it and I went sat down. I showed me a sheet. She leaned over she said let me see this. So I handed it over to her she went through it. She handbrakes it still a damn good story. So that was that was great. It was a wonderful thing. I don't remember but I do remember I had a typewriter with round green keys but it might have been the Smith-Corona. I ended up filching off somebody that I brought with me when I moved here. You know I didn't know I could tell you a million stories of coming here but you can imagine Southern California and Tijuana. I mean I literally was at an orphanage in Baja California and then here and the really cool thing the thing that let me know that this was a sacred journey was Bo Diddley was on my flight. He got on the plane and he had a jacket that said Rock in period roll in studs and he borrowed my pen to sign autographs. I still have my red pen. I was like
Bo Diddley. OK. But when I came here I had a duffel bag with some clothes the typewriter a couple of books and some records about Elvis Costello. I remember. I was obsessed with Elvis Costello at the time. And then you know overpays as we listened to King pleasure James Brown and Jackie Wilson remember it was awesome. But you know I just came in when I was leaving San Diego. I had no idea what the deal was with Boston and I went to my librarian and I said to the guy say do you have any books about Boston. And he said Boston and I said yeah I'm moving to Boston and he says are you looking for Rachel Wallace. And I said What. He said are you looking for Rachel Wallace. I said I don't know what you're talking about. He said You know Robert B Parker. I said. So he took me to a shelf and he got me three or four Robert B Parker books he said this is what you need to know if you want to know about Boston.
And I just went nuts Spencer you know. Wow. So when I got here I wrote Parker fan letters stupidly thinking I could reach him and it got to him and I said I am teaching ex-boss and I've decided to teach looking for Rachel WALLACE And it's kind of freaking out the students because you know they think we're going to study Dickens and here I am with Spencer and he sent me this letter said Dickens who I'll never forget. And then he says why don't I come meet your students. And I realize these things only happen at Harvard you know they don't happen at Chicano studies and you me Mesa college at Harvard. And so I astonished. You know I called him up he was cool and I told the students he was coming and he was waiting out outside our offices. I had a Harris tweed jacket denim shirt blue jeans and white running shoes right. And here comes Parker in white running shoes jeans a denim shirt and a Harris tweed jacket and he walks up to me.
He stops he says my I love your dress code. So I was that was that was an amazing experience. But yeah I had never seen anything like this before. I had never I had never seen snow before and the first day it snowed. I mean I'd seen snow in California in San Diego when it snows. You drive three hours to the mountains and there's a little two inch cross of snow and you scrape together a snowball throw at say Damn that hurt. And then you leave. I've never seen it really snowing. And I was in my apartment Somerville's in Spring Hill and Somerville that I was on the phone with somebody and I realized it was stuff going by you know it was. And I said to her Someone's up on the roof shaking up their pillow. She said you idiot. And the other even more embarrassing thing was with my first group of Harvard students standing outside the union by the faculty club and we were talking it was probably around November or maybe early December and I was looking at the ground and it was all the shiny stuff on the bricks. I was looking at it. I put my foot out and it was slippery you know. And I said
my students. Somebody put Vaseline on the sidewalk they write to me and remind me of that. What the heck. It's just it's just a quirk. But this town is so quirky anyway that I think that they admire oddness as long as you can be odd in an entertaining fashion. They used to have a practical joke. KING This man who announced he was the practical joke king of Mexico and he was in and out of jail because he caused so much urban terror and someone actually died of a heart attack in one of his assaults you know and they've always remembered that and they still like practical jokers. There's a family called the Limone family for example they have a bodega and they have a lot of the stuff in the bodega in the back room behind a curtain and they hire retired people to spend the day in the bodega and they give them books or crochet and they just sit there in a chair and when you come in to buy something you say they need some cigarettes or some people say oh yeah
that's in the back room and I say think we know. They say the store is haunted. We've never seen the ghost but it's an older person and it scares people really terrible. And then they sent him through the curtain in person stands up and they kind around and they actually pay a salary to the ghost. So it's just a quirk of the town. It's just a funky town. That to me was hilarious. And I think you know they find themselves funny but I don't know that they were completely comfortable with my finding it funny because I was the outsider and they were like you're not mocking us are you saying no I'm celebrating. I never seen anything like this play. So it was just one of those odd things you know the other thing I talk about in Hummingbird's Daughter But in that part of Mexico people call you you know like he would be the Lourie pay. LOWRY Hey I'm Errol Louis and everybody's like this and that and people from Mexico City are always chiding them you know what is this everybody has sort of a royal honorific. I am Vili's.
You know it's just another quirk of the town what did I have. They didn't have computers back then but I got one. So I have one now. Yeah yeah. Right on computer. It's good. It's my cousin. He's from that town. He's the Hubbard and Ric O'Barry. They pronounce it. He's the guy who grew up with tacho and his brother is one of the drawings in Mr. Mendoza's paint. It's just kind of cool because the artist is a is an anarchist punk rocker and he had been in Mexico City with a collective of anarchist punks doing menial work. And when he got the story he was so enamored of the town that he flew to the town and just appeared on my family's doorstep and they were very suspicious you know not quite friendly. And there was a series of phone calls around the country and then they realized oh he's a friend of Luis's OK you know whatever. You know they expect the worst for me at all times. And they took him in and beat my cousin Jorge who's in enríquez brother. He was the
chief of traffic police and the beer distributor. So you would find him in his uniform cell selling beer to people and I told him the guy's nickname which was a wasis which was like local nickname for good times. Mr. Good times. And so this poor punk rocker shows up in this village and he just went from person to person. You know Lassa us and they'd be like no you know I said but sure enough about the tenth person said to us I know why. And they took him right to wasis and Jorge took him in and showed him around. So while he was doing the sketches for the book a mass Atlanta newspaper came and they interviewed him like What are you doing what is gringo doing drawing audio are very suspicious and so he told him the whole story. But he told them he was in a narco punk. And sure enough big headlines narco punk in Rosario and he was like I'd better go home now. But
there's no craziness anyway. Well it was happening in Tijuana too. Let's face it I mean Tijuana hideously violent for a little bit but the violence has abated. But they were you know there were there were a lot of really bad you know events happening recently. One of my uncles might be of help to you. He's a lawyer in Rosarito I Carlos and he used to be a motorcycle cop. Now he's a big deal lawyer if he isn't you know something shady. I don't know but he's he's interesting guy. He might be helpful too. Yeah. I mean you know you have to know about the one. When I was growing up you know San Diego Tijuana to me is a little boy I didn't know the difference. It was just all of a piece. And the border in those days wasn't what it is now in fact you know in Tijuana there was a riverbed and there was a slum there called Carter Islandia right where people lived in cardboard boxes. And you went through the Tijuana River which was just a mud bog under this rickety bridge and it was kind of a fantasy journey because you would go
from San Diego through this thing and be you know grandma town where my relatives were and you'd get the tortillas and you know it was just like going to a different adventure land at Disney World or something. And I said you know they would send me go get tortillas and I'd walk you know 10 blocks and get tortillas in the tortilla ladies would make me a hot tortilla with lemon juice and salt or butter. You know it was magic. And then all of a sudden it changed and the time it changed for me was I was living in this barrio. We lived in these housing kind of projects. It was very violent. I might make jokes about it but at the end of fourth grade there was some specific street violence that I outran. Fortunately my parents realized it was time to get out and we moved up. You might know this Claremont working class suburb they used to tell me that Hell was actually Clairemont that when you died you drove into Clairemont at night and you just went from cul de sac to culdesac and ever find your way back out for
eternity just drove. But when I went there from from where I lived it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. Right. They had lawns I remember green lawns I thought these guys are millionaires right. They green lawns. Yeah. That's right. So that was where we went to the beach and you'd rent horses you know. But I think it's you know it has a lot of things going for any place. Is there you know Fox studios are there. I think a lot of the violence has eased off you know several of the really bad narco characters have been taken out or imprisoned or killed which is all good until somebody takes their place. But it has it has calmed a lot. It's been hard. I have family living. They want to and to survive. They have had to rely on stratagems you know. They actually have a strategy for going to the store. My brother has an old beater truck and he takes off his jewelry and his wedding rings and he puts on old clothes and he
drives trying to look pathetic. So nobody see him. But I think that's passing. I think that you know the pitched battle that is certainly isn't what it is. I mean what is forget about it. You know forget about it's too scary. That's it. OK. Thank you
- Harvard Book Store
- WGBH Forum Network
- Contributing Organization
- WGBH (Boston, Massachusetts)
- AAPB ID
- Award-winning novelist, poet, and essayist Luis Alberto Urrea reads from and discusses his newest novel, Into the Beautiful North.Nineteen-year-old Nayeli works at a taco shop in her Mexican village and dreams about her father, who journeyed to the US when she was young. Recently, it has dawned on her that he isn't the only man who has left town. In fact, there are almost no men in the village--they've all gone north. While watching The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli decides to go north herself and recruit seven men--her own "Siete Magnficos"--to repopulate her hometown and protect it from the bandidos who plan on taking it over.
- Literature & Philosophy; People & Places
- Media type
- Moving Image
Speaker2: Urrea, Luis
- AAPB Contributor Holdings
Identifier: 16588735d5da5a76fa065d3101863d72dfda547e (ArtesiaDAM UOI_ID)
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- Chicago: “Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Luis Alberto Urrea: Into the Beautiful North,” 2010-06-21, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed October 1, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-td9n29ph67.
- MLA: “Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Luis Alberto Urrea: Into the Beautiful North.” 2010-06-21. WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. October 1, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-td9n29ph67>.
- APA: Harvard Book Store; WGBH Forum Network; Luis Alberto Urrea: Into the Beautiful North. Boston, MA: WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-15-td9n29ph67